Sally Bavage writes:
Our partnership event with the Irish Arts Foundation on Friday 2 March was a double bill which promised to be entertaining and thought-provoking – what the LitFest always aims for - and we were not disappointed.
Father O’Malley, I imagined, would be a frailish man in his eightieth year. Not a bit of it! He gave us a feisty view of the history of the movement to preserve the Irish language since the end of the Middle Ages, spiced up with recollections and anecdotes of his own part in its preservation. He had subtitled his account of the rise and fall of the speaking of Gaelic as “the dream of the Gaelic League”, founded at the end of the nineteenth century after three centuries of decline, and “the reality of failed twentieth century government initiatives and minuscule funding” leading to Gaelic having an uncertain future in contemporary Ireland.
As early as the sixteenth century, the poet Brian Ó Gnimh was speaking about being adrift on a rising tide of English which reduced his words to the lonely call of seabirds:
I am the guillemot, the English the sea.
Reasons for the decline were many: Cromwell, colonisation by the English, some of whom insisted their labourers and their families spoke English, the Great Potato Famine, lack of employment opportunities ... all conspired to confine Gaelic speaking to outlying areas, in some cases within a generation. Although the Gaelic League made good progress up to 1916, speaking the native language also fed the aspirations of the republican freedom movement, which led to government support being mealy-mouthed and inconsistent.
Father O’Malley gave us an entertaining account of his part in the setting up of a pirate radio station that confronted those who said it was technically impossible. Quite a turbulent priest indeed. Now there are thriving TV and radio stations which broadcast in Gaelic. Forty years ago, those who refused to pay a licence for English-only broadcasts only in English were jailed. However, in uncertain economic times, the progressive strategy to support the acquisition and the use of the native language is in doubt.
Irish literature is published by two key publishing houses, who provide volumes of stories, short stories and poetry, and who support modern young poets as well as more traditional forms. The Queen spoke in Gaelic in 2011 on her visit to the country, which has given a fillip to the movement determined to hold back the tide of cultural globalisation through TV, radio and news media that threatens to swamp the resurgence of Ireland’s native language. Food for thought indeed.
For the second half of the evening we were delightfully entertained by Dylan Bible on guitar and Amanda Fardy’s vocals as they explored traditional themes of life, love and loss using some modern interpretations of old Irish airs. It was Trad meets Blues meets Burt Bacharach through haunting melodies and piercing words.
A truly enjoyable evening exploring the voices of Ireland! If the definition of an elegy is ‘mourning or expressing sorrow for that which is irrecoverably past (and you like to play upon words) then our evening was Gaelic to elegiac – almost.
Below, Father O’Malley